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Benjamin Hooks

director of the NAACP

Benjamin Hooks

Benjamin Lawson Hooks was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 31, 1925, the fifth of Robert and Bessie Hooks' seven children. His father and uncle ran a successful photography business; his paternal grandmother, Julia Hooks, was the second black female college graduate in the nation (from Berea College in Kentucky).

Hooks studied pre-law at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis from 1941 to 1943, but completed his studies at Howard University in 1944. He then joined the U. S. Army and was assigned to guard Italian prisoners of war. He left the army as a Staff Sergeant in 1945, after which he enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, from which he received his Juris Doctor degree in 1948. He subsequently returned to Memphis, passed the Tennessee Bar, and established a law practice.

In 1949, Hooks met a teacher named Frances Dancy. The two were married in 1952, and they subsequently had one daughter, Patricia.

Hooks became an ordained Baptist minister in 1956, and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the following year. By the early 1960's he was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), helping to organize sit-ins in Memphis. He also became a bank director and the cofounder of a life insurance company, and, beginning in 1961, served as an assistant public defender for Shelby County, Tennessee.

In 1965, Tennesee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed Hooks to fill a vacancy on the Shelby County criminal court. The first black to hold a judicial appointment in the state's history, he was elected to a full eight-year term in 1966.

Hooks left the bench in 1968 to become Mahalia Jackson Chicken Systems, a black-owned business. Unfortunately, the business went under a few years later.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The first black to ever serve as an FCC commissioner, Hooks addressed the lack of minority ownership of television and radio stations, the lack of minority employment in the broadcasting industry, and the image of African-Americans in the mass media. During his tenure, minority employment in broadcasting rose from three to fifteen percent nationally.

Elected executive director of the NAACP in 1976, Hooks left the FCC and officially assumed his new office on August 1, 1977. Under his leadership the membership of the organization increased by several hundred thousand members. Much of his work as director focused on gaining increased employment opportunities for minorities and the complete removal of U. S. businesses from South Africa. Early in 1990, Hooks and his family were among those targeted in a wave of bombings against civil rights leaders. Hooks; leadership of the NAACP was often marked by internal disputes, but he was backed by a majority of the sixty-four-member board until retiring in 1993.

After his retirement, Hooks served as pastor of Middle Baptist Church and president of the National Civil Rights Museum, both in Memphis. He also taught at Memphis University. In 1996, the University created the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. In July 1998, Governor Don Sundquist asked Hooks, along with four others, to serve on a special state Supreme Court to oversee Tennessee's election and retention of appellate court judges. On November 5, 2007, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award.

Dr. Benjamin Lawson Hooks died in Memphis on April 15, 2010.


The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change
The Black Past Remembered
Encyclopedia of World Biography

See Also

President Richard Nixon

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The Robinson Library >> African-Americans